During the month of March (2008) I lived social science. I devoted every spare time I had to thinking about the major social scientists and their contributions to their field of endeavor. I am now done with that task. However, I find myself wondering whether social science really is a science or a pseudo science?
In this essay, I will try to answer my own question and if, perchance, similar questions exercise your mind you could benefit from my cogitations.
To answer my question we first must have some clarity as to what is science? What is science?
During the month I looked at what some observers said that science is, or is not. David Hume, John Locke and Karl Popper, for example, see science as a methodological approach to phenomena, a way of looking at things, not necessarily what is looked at itself.
Science is not interested in what the past history, or our ancestors said about the nature of things (culture is irrelevant) but is interested in looking at things as they are now.
What is water? Water is not necessarily what our ancestors said that it is. Water is water. So what is water? Go find out.
Chemists (a subset of scientists) heat water up (apply fire, heat and pressure, to a beaker of water) and it evaporates into vapor. That vapor is caught in another container and examined and found to be composed of gases. (Note that we have just transformed liquid to gas and can also transform that liquid and or gas to solid, in this case, ice.)
Two kinds of gases can be identified in that vapor, Oxygen and hydrogen gases. The question: what is water does not end with the understanding that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen; in fact, that answer is only a beginning in the effort to understand water.
Oxygen and hydrogen are elements. There are over 104 elements in the universe. What are elements? Elements are kinds of atoms.
What are atoms? Atoms are composed of particles, such as electrons, neutrons and protons.
What are electrons, neutrons and protons? Those are composed of sub particles, such as quarks and myriad others.
What are sub particles? Well, our current scientific instruments seem unable to answer that question, at this time.
What is clear is that we could go on and on trying to understand the nature of things until we go as far as our current scientific instruments are able to help us. Perhaps, ultimately, things (matter and energy, which Einstein tells us are the same) are made of nothing?
Perhaps, in their truest essence nothing exists? Perhaps, out of nothingness what seems like things (solid, gas and liquid, the three forms of matter) came about.
If something came from nothing it follows that ultimately something is nothing. Nothingness exists? Okay, let us leave metaphysics out, for the time being, any way.
Science is a methodological approach to phenomena that looks at things and tries to understand them as they are, not as the observer would want them to be. What the observer wants to be is irrelevant; what the observer wishes were the nature of things is irrelevant. (Since when has things turned out as human beings want them to be?)
To science what matters is understanding things as they are. What our ancestors said is the nature of anything is beside the point if it cannot be verified as the true nature of things. Science looks at phenomena objectively and accepts those aspects of knowledge of it that can be verified by any observer choosing to look at it through the scientific method. (Any school boy can heat water up, and see it evaporate into vapor. He catches that vapor by connecting the container containing the water with a tube to another container where gas can be stored. The obtained gas can be differentiated into oxygen and hydrogen through further heating etc.)
The salient point is that science tries to understand what is, not what folk say that it is or is not. What is must be subject to our mutual verification (through the experimental method).
Science studies nature (from Latin, natura) and physics (Greek) as it is, not as man wishes that it is.
Having understood how nature, or aspects of it, is, science devises technology to manipulate it for the good of man.
For example, observing birds fly, science works to understand the laws of aerodynamics and applies that law (how to defy gravity that pulls objects down and fly up) to inventing airplanes. The more we understand the physics of aerodynamics the more we can design airplanes and fly from place to place. But without understanding the physics of drag, push, pull, velocity and overall Newtonian Mechanics we cannot fly. Wishing that we flew is just that: wishing, and is not going to make it happen until we understand the physics of flying and imitate it in our technology of flying (planes, rockets etc).
Scientists have done an excellent job understanding how the physical world works. Because of their success in understanding how physical phenomena works some folk reason that perhaps it is possible to apply the scientific method to human beings, to understanding human behavior. These people call themselves social scientists. They hope that they could apply the scientific method to human beings and in so doing come to understand the enigma called man.
Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century the various social sciences emerged as serious academic endeavor. All of them used to be part of an omnibus field called philosophy; they separated from philosophy and now call themselves social science.
Several disciplines now call themselves social science: political science, psychology, sociology, anthropology and economics. I have looked at some of the giants of these fields and what they did.
What I want to know is whether these so-called social sciences are truly scientific? Have the social scientists succeeded in studying human beings and figuring out whom human beings are?
Psychology has been around for some hundred plus years, so has it understood human beings? What do you think? Has any psychologist understood you?
I would say that aspects of human psychology have been successful described. On the other hand, to say that extant Western Psychology has understood human beings qua human beings is a joke. Psychologists know diddle squat about human beings. The essence of humanity has not been understood by psychology.
Consider thinking. Neuroscience, that aspect of psychology that pretends most to be a science, tells us that thinking is characterized by the movement of neurons in the brain. They have studied and understood the neuron and how it communicates from one neuron to another.
The neuron is a nerve cell and is like other human cells except that it performs the specialized function of relating information from one nerve to another (at the synapse of nerves). How this is done (electrical potential, ions and neurotransmitters) is fairly well understood.
There is no doubt that information is relayed from one nerve cell to another. But is this what thinking is about? Consider. Why did I decide to type this reflective essay on the nature of the social sciences? How did the neurons in my brain make that decision of purpose (teleology) and then discipline themselves to go type it rather than do other things?
I do not pretend to understand how any of these things work nor does neuroscience (and I know as much of it as is known by any one else).
Of course we must study psychology; psychology helps us to understand what can be understood about human behavior but we must not delude ourselves into believing that it enables us to know who we are.
Even in areas where it seems to have accurately described aspects of human behavior psychology is unable to do something about it. Consider psychiatry (the study of abnormal psychology). Psychiatry has correctly described pathological behavior. We all know what schizophrenia, mania, delusion, anxiety is. But we do not know how to change those mental disorders. All the medications of neuropsychology can do is masking the symptoms of psychosis but does not heal them. Yet the psychotic, if he decides, can heal himself. How so? We know as a matter of empirical fact that two thirds of those who experience initial psychotic decompensation tends to go on and become chronic whereas one third spontaneously heals. Why did some psychotics heal without medical intervention? This is not the place to try to answer that question.
Political science is able to describe human beings political behaviors but, so far, has not been able to change any aspect of human political behavior. For example, we know that Americans vote for middle aged (fifty something years old) white males who attended Ivy League universities, are lawyers and are relatively success in life, to become their leaders. Can political science go beyond description and show Americans how to elect other types of people to political offices? Can Americans elect women or African Americans to high offices? Is it enough to say that it is prejudice against these people that prevents their election to high offices?
Talking about Prejudice, which the psychologist, Gordon Allport, did excellently in his book, The Nature of Prejudice, can prejudice be socialized out of folk’s psyches?
Political science is a descriptive science and not a predictive science, hence is not a real science.
Sociology describes social institutions and shows how they impact on peoples subsequent behaviors. Folk who were socialized to accept certain cultural ideas, and who were raised in certain social classes tend to behave in a certain manner. If a boy is raised by a young single mother, a poor mother, in the inner city ghetto, and did not do well at school etc he is likely going to not compete well for the good jobs of America. Such boys tend to end up as either wage slaves in a factory or criminals in the “hood”.
Sociology is able to describe the impact of social institutions on children. But can it do something to change the institutions and shape behavior differently? Any one with descriptive powers can describe human behaviors and conjecture on what might have caused them. Literary writers like William Shakespeare described people’s up-bringing and subsequent behaviors. No sociologist has matched Shakespeare’s description of human behavior.
The point is that one does not need to study sociology to know these things, merely been a keen observer of the human condition is sufficient for one to understand what human beings do and speculate on why they do them.
Anthropology applies the epistemology of sociology to preliterate societies, such as in early twentieth century Africa and the pacific Islands. Anthropology is descriptive of cultures but beyond that is not able to tell us any damn thing about the people it describes.
Economics is an artificial science (if the word science applies to it at all). Economics does not describe anything that exists in nature but describes human economic activities, activities designed by human beings to serve their interests.
The manner of economic activity changes with social changes. In earlier societies people simply took fruits from trees and ate them, took leaves from plants and ate them, hunted down animals and ate their meat. That was all there was to human economic behavior.
Later on, society became somewhat specialized and folk were no longer able to meet all their personal needs and learned to barter goods and services. If you are a good hunter you concentrated on hunting and exchanged your kills with a good farmer who gave you vegetables and fruits to supplement year meat diet.
With increasing specializations people developed money and used it as a medium for exchanging goods and services. They gave currency value and exchanged their goods and services with currency.
In itself currency has no value. Currency’s value is strictly a social construct. As an artificial construct currency could lose its value at any time.
For example, since the end of the Second World War when America emerged the superpower of the Western world, folk agreed to make the American dollar their international exchange currency and that agreement gave the dollar enormous value. Now, folk are increasingly withdrawing the value they gave to the dollar and its value is plummeting. In fifty years the dollar probably would not have the kind of value it currently has. The dollar’s worth is a social construct, not a natural worth, as many Americans have come to believe.
Before their very eyes the American economy is becoming second rate and by the time this century is over it is doubtful that America would be the dominant economic power in the world. China is probably going to have that honor. Power is a social construct and shifts with time.
The salient point is that economics is completely a socially made up discipline and there is nothing natural to its conclusions. Because it is an artificial construct it is conceivable that different constructs of economics can be constructed; economics can be deconstructed and reconstructed on a different model.
Communist and socialist constructs of economics tried to replace capitalist constructs of economics but were obviously no better than the classical economics of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. What is clear is that we have not seen the last change in the concept of economics.
As the American empire and its emphasis on Adam Smith’s laissez faire economics wanes in importance, different constructs of economics will certainly come to the fore.
Where am I going with all these? I am going nowhere; and there is no where to go to. What I am trying to articulate albeit circuitously is that the social sciences are useful endeavor to study human beings. We must encourage the social sciences. However, we ought not to have the illusion that social science or for that matter physical science can understand human beings qua human beings.
The physical sciences obviously can understand the human body, for body is made of matter.
The social sciences, as are novels, can describe human behavior. But neither of these two approaches to understanding phenomena can understand man qua man. This is because it is man himself that is doing the understanding of himself. It seems that the “understander” cannot understand himself.
There seems something in human beings that tries to understand the world it lives in. That something has not been understood, nor can it really be understood.
Folk call that something in human beings that tries to understand itself spirit or mind. What is spirit, what is mind? I do not know.
What I do know for sure is that there is something in human beings that is not matter. That something probably does not have a name, for to name something is to limit it and that something seems limitless. To define something is to restrict its scope; there is something in human beings that cannot be restricted or limited in scope.
For simplicity case let us call that unknown X in human beings spirit. Spirit does not have form and, therefore, cannot be described with words, for words are best able to describe what has forms.
The human psyche, mind, spirit, call it what you like, is the one trying to understand its self (in the temporal universe, in matter). I do not believe that it can succeed in this endeavor.
I certainly do not think that any of the social sciences has understood the essence of human beings.
To make my point that man is still an unknown variable, let us consider two issues studied by social scientist, realism and idealism.
Political scientists, especially those studying International politics, talk a lot about political realism and political idealism. Henry Kissinger and his club of political realists tell us that they have understood political behavior.
The political realist accepts human beings as he thinks that they are and does not try to change them. He thinks that he sees people grappling to master and dominate their environment. Human animals struggle for power and control of the territories they live in. Those who are more powerful dominate those who are weaker. This is the way it is, political realists tell us.
If you want to get more out of life you struggle to be powerful and dominate the weaker portion of mankind.
First, you try to gain control of your country and use its military to dominate weaker countries. You rob other countries of their resources; you cart other countries resources to your country.
As long as you have the military weapons to intimidate other people, to strike fear into their souls, out of fear of been killed by you, they would allow you to steal their resources.
In this light, America the terrorist state uses its military weapons to intimidate poor third world countries, and out of fear those countries allow it to cart their resource to America. Kissinger says that this is political realism at work and that it is the way of the world.
By the standard of realistic America, realistic third world countries strive to acquire military power. Since it is now mostly third world students that pay attention to physics, it is obvious that by the middle of this century third world folk would have nuclear weapons.
Despite the West’s efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, as long as folk understand that Americans are terrorists who use nuclear weapons to intimidate them, and they do not like been intimidated by terrorists into doing what they do not want to do, they must struggle to be free from this intimidation. Thus, they must develop nuclear weapons, and worse.
Having become strong they would check mate America. America would not be the first superpower to have been knocked off her pedestal by emergent powers. If you doubt it ask yourself where ancient powers like Egypt, Greece, Persia, Rome, France, Britain, even Russia are today. They are in the dustbin if history. America, too, would join the dustbin of history’s have been powers; empires come and empire go; soldiers come, soldiers go.
The relevant point to all these is that political realism is a double aged sword; it may enable those predisposed to antisocial thinking and behaviors, like Kissinger’s (the man’s thought processes, as exhibited in his ponderous books, are exactly as is found in criminals in jails; it is a wonder that the man is not in prison, where he probably belongs) to do their thing of stealing other people’s wealth but sooner or later that same logic would make other people steal from them.
The alternative to the criminal thinking that calls itself political realism is political idealism, a pattern of thinking that political realists deride and make fun of.
Political realists, such as the current Neocons that surround George Bush, tend to see political idealists as unrealistic, as children, indeed as neurotic. To them, some one must be insane to wish that people be ideal and work to help each another. How can you wish that people cooperate with one another, wish that those blessed with more intelligence and job skills use them to produce goods and services that serve all people? If such idealistic thoughts entered your mind you live in fantasyland. In the real world people are as Thomas Hobbes described them: atoms competing for power and prestige, and as Adam Smith described them, as driven by selfish interests, and as Edward Wilson described them in his Sociobiology, as driven by selfish genes.
As Herbert Spencer observed, we live in a social Darwinian world where folk are in perpetual struggle for food and the fittest succeed and the weakest die out. Don’t cry because of reality, do what you can to get your own share of the goodies of this world and live well.
Live well for one hundred years and since all animals must die, die, and disappear into oblivion from when you came. (Some powerful animals, people, are remembered by history; we remember Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Hitler Stalin and others who slaughtered human beings in their quest for power and glory.)
Yet some people insist that human beings could do better than political realists suggest is the human lot, who believe that idealism, though it often degenerates to mere fantasy, is the nature of human beings.
Idealists believe that people are imperfect versions of ideal states; Plato called it archetypes. They see human imperfection and wish that people were perfect and work towards perfection.
Working towards ideas of perfection is what idealism is all about. True, in the here and now world criminals with guns do steal folks resources, as Americans do, but something in the idealist tells him that such behavior is not right; something tells him that it is better to work for our mutual good than to rob other people and take pride in doing so (as Kissinger and his fellow political realists do).
Realism, idealism, whither we go? I cannot tell you which way to go.
The relevant point is that we cannot socialize idealism out of people. In fact, if all idealism is taken out of people they would live like animals. They would live like predatory animals without purpose and meaning to their lives.
So you lord it over others, eh? What is that all about? Notice that those who live such lives are condemned to taking drugs and alcohol in their efforts to make their meaningless and purposeless existence tolerable. Amoral American political realists are condemned to taking drugs (and America is drugs heaven).
Alas, all the alcohol and drugs of this world would not give one meaning if one lives to screw other people.
Look, one is not sentimental at all. One accepts people as one sees them. Actually, one is very cynical. See, the universe came into being through explosion, Big Bang, and is currently expanding. In a few more billion years the Sun would burn out most of its energy and turn into a nova, incorporate its planets and blow itself to smithereens and human beings would come to an end.
And that is as well, for their sorry history ought to end. As Arthur Schopenhauer observed, man seems a mistake of nature, a mistake that ought not to have been made. It was a mistake to create folk that think that it is fun to enslave their brothers and sisters and consider such odious behavior a sign of power. Reading Hitler’s Mien Kampf, his joy in sadism, makes you wonder whether human beings are inherently evil. How can human beings believe that to kill other people and take over their lands is appropriate behavior? Power would seem to lie in helping all people live well.
Power would seem to lie in love. But this is idealism, is it not? Well, then, let us put on our realism hat and think like criminals and leave it at that.
Let me conclude by saying that the social scientists are performing a very useful function; it is nice that they struggle to understand man as he is in fact, not as he wishes that he is. Unfortunately, they are up against a hard nut to crack, human beings.
I do not think that the methodology of science and social science can understand the essence of human beings. This does not mean that we should not try to understand human beings. Of course, we must try understanding people; we cannot help but do so, anyway, for there is something in us that wants to understand us, even if we must fail.
We are like the Greek hero, Sisyphus; we must try to understand ourselves, and improve our world, knowing full well that we cannot succeed. We keep on rolling that rock up a hill only to see it roll right down. And we try again, again and again. This is the human condition.
Pity human beings, but while at it do not baby them by telling them that their situation would change and become one where some divine force gives them their food without their working for it; as far as we know, people are condemned to working for their sustenance; there does not seem a benevolent power out there that exists to help them; only they can help themselves.
I do not think that man can be understood and that he could be improved. Nevertheless, I believe that we ought to continue doing what we are doing, trying to understand man and improve him. If we did not do so, what else is would we be doing, anyway?
What are we living for? Objectively speaking all we are, are food digesting machines. We eat food, digest it (break it down) and extract nutrition, energy from it and use that energy to keep us alive, and defecate the rest of the food.
What are we living for? What is the meaning and purpose of existence; is it just so we survive but survive for what?
The simple fact is that looking at this world with clarity of vision does not show any meaning and purpose to it. We are like animals driven by some inner force to live and we do all that we could to live but live for what we do not know.
Something in us, the ego separated self, feels motivated to live and live at all costs, and fears harm and death. The ego practically lives to defend itself. Alas, despite its defense, one hundred years later, die it must.
This seems pessimistic, is it not? There is no two ways of putting it. Looking at what’s called human beings gives one the impression that they are animals driven to survive and reproduce themselves, but why they must live is not apparent. Oh, they have religious mumbo jumbo as to why they live.
. Yet there is reason for optimism. Whereas religion is largely an attempt to escape from the pains of this world and escape into a fantasy world where all is peachy yet there is something in religion that encourages one to believe that there is a non-material aspect to human existence. What that non-material aspect of us is I do not know. I suspect that there is a side of us that is formless, eternal, permanent and everlasting.
May be it is an illusion, a delusion to believe in spirit? Okay, but what harm is there in having some illusion? Is the world itself not an illusion?
How do you know that the empirical world exists? Do we not see a world that looks like our day world in our dreams and yet when we waken from the dream that world is gone? How do we know that this empirical world is not a figment in our minds, a dream?
Hinduism says that the world is a nightmarish dream to be awakened from and devotes its religious practices trying to teach folk how to negate this world and escape from it and awaken in a better world, the world of Brahman/Atman. Buddhism pretty much teaches the same thing. An American clinical psychologist, Helen Schucman, reached the same conclusion in her book, A course in miracles.
George Berkeley reminds us that the world may be an idea in our minds; solipsism, this is called. But before you start making fun of philosophical idealism, do remember that materialism has not proved that the world exists outside our minds. It still takes human agency to observe the existence of the world, so if human beings, the observers, do not exist we do not know that the world exists. As Erwin Schrodinger showed us in his quantum physics, the observer influences the world he observes. The world is more complex than simplistic positive science would like us to believe.
One does not pretend to know what the answer to the conundrum of being is. One merely hopes that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I choose not to speculate on the nature of that light, I just believe in it.
In the meantime, one appreciates the mission of science and social science but must conclude that admirable as they are that they have not and, perhaps, cannot understand man.
I say let us keep on studying science and social science but let us have no illusion that we shall understand and change man.
Oh, man can be changed, but it is the individual who can change himself, other people cannot change him. Change him or not we must have the illusion that he is changeable and keep on trying to change him. The day we stopped trying to change people is the day we lost hope in living.
Life in body, on earth is pain and then folk die. Yet I would not give it up, nor do I regret it. It is actually fun to live without knowing why you live. It is fun to see no meaning and purpose to life and yet try to make the most of it.
I agree with Jean Paul Sartre (see his Being and Nothingness) that it would not be better for life to be any other way.
If we had been given apriori meaning and purpose to live for we would have been determined, we would be no different from slaves. It is nice that we see no meaning and purpose to our existence and struggle to give ourselves meaning and purpose to live for. We study something, gain expertise in it and use that knowledge to improve the human condition. This behavior, to me, seems heroic. I would not have it any other way. So, I say, let us get on with the sciences and social sciences; they are fun and heroic endeavor; it is heroic to understand nothing that seems like something important.